A Comics Round-Up

With two of my favorite comics series (Fables and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye) coming to an end this year, it seems like a good time to try out some other series. So I’ve been grabbing a few trade paperbacks from the library so see what I think. It’s been a mixed success so far.

Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch


Hannah, Violet, Dee, Betty

rat-queens-vol-01-releasesThe Rat Queens are a team of four mercenaries who battle trolls and other assorted monsters in between parties and barroom brawls. These four ladies have the potential to be great characters, but in this first volume, they weren’t quite there yet for me. I was impressed at how well they’re drawn. Each on has a distinct body type, and they’re all allowed to be sexy without their attractiveness being their main function.

That said, the story wasn’t exactly my thing. It’s a very action-focused comic so far, and the central mystery was solved by accident (as Betty, the Rat Queen who solves it, admits outright). And I sometimes felt like the story was working too hard at making them brash and bawdy without giving them much of anything else to do. That, however, might a result of this being an exposition-centric volume. With each character, but especially Dee and Violet, we’re given hints of a history that could lead to more depth later on. So far, I’m particularly interested in Dee, the non-believing mystic. Maybe I just appreciated that during the volume’s final party, she retreated to a corner with a book:

This is my party. This book. The book is good. It asks no questions. The book lets me engage it on my own terms.

I hear you, Dee.

Verdict? I’m not subscribing to this yet, but I’ll probably get the second volume from the library when it comes out this May to see if the story goes deeper as it goes on.

Black Widow: The Finely Woven Thread by Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto

Black WidowUnlike the ladies of Rat Queens, Natasha Romanoff already has an established back-story, so this volume of new Black Widow comics just has to establish the world she’s in and her current motivations. Natasha’s mercenary work is less about earning money for beer and more about making amends. She lives simply—what she earns goes toward supporting her web of safe houses. Her lawyer and manager, Isaiah, is constantly haranguing her about money, but she’s determined to only take on jobs that meet her ethical standards. If she discovers midstream that a job isn’t what she expected, she’ll take down her client and lose the money.

This volume has Natasha going on a series of missions for various clients, as well as taking on a S.H.I.E.L.D. that gets more complicated than expected. As with Hawkeye, my lack of Marvel comics knowledge wasn’t much of a problem with this book, although toward the end, a man who is apparently a villain appears who I think was supposed to be familiar to readers. I had never heard of him, and it looks like he’s a fairly minor villain.

black-widow-1-page-19Although the complications in the final issue are satisfying and have me curious to read the next volume, Natasha’s journey to redemption is more important than the details of her missions. A lot of her inner monologue about being alone and uncertain hits predictable notes, but, as with the Rat Queens, I think there’s potential for more. (And I liked this book a little better overall than I did Rat Queens.)

Also, as with Rat Queens, I have to give a shout out to the art. Phil Noto’s Natasha has a natural and realistic sort of beauty, unlike so many depictions of superwomen in comic-book art. I loved the way she was drawn. She’s so ordinary, not the type of woman who would stand out in a crowd, which is a good quality in a spy. The contrast was especially striking when I looked at the variant covers included at the end of this volume. Most of those emphasized her sex appeal, showing her bursting out of her cat suit or staring wide-eyed with lips parted. (Note to male comic artists: The kind of work Natasha does in her cat suit requires a bra.) I only found one of the variants (by Frank Cho and Justin Posner) even mildly tolerable.

There’s also a pretty good Hawkeye joke toward the end of this book.

Verdict? I want to read more, but I’m not sure I want to spend money on it. It’s not quite that good. A second volume is out, and I’ve requested that the library get it, so we’ll see.

Pretty Deadly Volume 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Ríos

Pretty_Deadly-01This horror western looked terrific, but I was disappointed by it. The story centers on death-faced Ginny, the daughter of Death himself, as she rides through the countryside on a mission of vengeance. I was so hoping for something like Stephen King’s The Gunslinger but with ladies. The art is beautiful, despite being extremely grisly and sometimes lurid.

The story, however, was nearly incomprehensible. It’s rare for me to give up on a trade paperback of a comic—they’re such a small investment of time—but I got tired after a couple of issues of going back and trying to work out the story and having no luck. It’s possible that I’m still too much of a comics newbie to grasp something with such an unconventional style. It’s also possible that the story doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Verdict? Nope.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

AvengersUnlike the other comics mentioned here, this wasn’t part of my search for new comics to subscribe to. I’ve never actually read the original stories before seeing any of the big comic book movies, and I thought that it might be fun to read the Ultron story arc before the new Avengers movie comes out. After reading this, I suspect (hope?) that Joss Whedon and his team mostly just borrowed the title from this story arc. Only a couple of Whedon’s Avengers (Clint and Natasha) have much to do in this book, and a couple are killed off almost from the beginning, so major adjustments would be required to make this story work.

Like Marvel’s Civil War, this series brings together heroes from across the Marvel universe. This time, they’re dealing with the aftermath of the return of the super-robot Ultron, created years earlier by Hank Pym. Several of the remaining Avengers and X-Men converge on Nick Fury’s secret base in Antarctica where they find a time machine that they can use to defeat Ultron in the future. After most of the group has left for the future, Wolverine and Sue Storm head to the past to talk to Hank. Time-travel complications ensue.

I found a lot of the action in this book confusing. Part of this was my lack of familiarity with so many of the characters. I knew enough about enough of them to get by, but I was missing a lot. But with so many characters, not many get more than passing attention. Overall, I found a lot more depth, with just as many characters, in the Civil War arc.

My ignorance about the characters was only one source of confusion, however. The way the panels are positioned makes it difficult at times to know where you’re supposed to read across spreads and when to read a page at a time. I’ve never had that problem with other comics, so I don’t think it’s just me. Also, there was one time jump too many toward the end. I was watching Star Trek: Voyager over the weekend and got to an episode that ends with a time paradox. Captain Janeway tells Ensign Kim that the best way she’s found to deal with time paradox is just not to think about it. Good advice, Captain. Still, I’d like enough coherence that I can at least follow the plot. Oh well.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | Leave a comment

Can You Forgive Her?

can you forgive herTeresa and I have decided to read all the Palliser novels together — our own little Trollope book club. (That is even more fun than it sounds.) I’ve read all the Barsetshire novels, and Can You Forgive Her?, the first of the Pallisers, is less ecclesiastical and more political than those. That’s what I expected. I also expected it to be wise about human nature, and it was. What I didn’t expect — though why didn’t I, now that I’ve read ten of Trollope’s novels? — is that it would be so funny.

Can You Forgive Her? entwines three storylines about the courtship, marriage, and decisions of three strong women: Alice Vavasor, Glencora Palliser, and Alice’s aunt, Arabella Greenow. Alice begins the novel by jilting her kind, gentle, and completely unexceptionable fiance, John Grey. Lady Glencora, who does not love her stiff-necked but equally perfect husband Plantagenet Palliser, considers leaving him for the utterly disreputable (but beautiful) Burgo Fitzgerald. And Mrs. Greenow, a recent widow, keeps two gentlemen — Mr. Cheesacre (Right but Repulsive), and Captain Bellfield (Wrong but Wromantic) — hilariously in suspense. Can you forgive them? Whom are we to forgive, and for what?

Teresa: I came to this having read The Duke’s Children—the final Palliser novel—way back in college. (I had a stuffed penguin that I dubbed Plantagenet the semester I read it.) So I had a sense of what the relationships among the characters would be like and some idea of the outcomes of at least a few of their dilemmas, but with Trollope a lot of the pleasure is in the little moments along the way. I found Mrs. Greenow and her suitors particularly funny, but I was impressed and a little surprised at how even in that comic story the question of who to marry ends up being treated seriously. Mrs. Greenow, with all her silliness, turns out to be pretty smart about her choices.

One of the things I found interesting is the way Trollope handles the idea of choice. Glencora is in a marriage she didn’t choose, and she’s unhappy. Alice gets the freedom to choose her husband, and she finds it impossible. Did you find any of the storylines particularly compelling—or frustrating?

Jenny: I thought Alice’s story and Lady Glencora’s were equally interesting, partly because Alice sees Glencora as a sort of cautionary tale. What will happen to her, she wonders, if she marries a man she loves and esteems, but who bores her? Will her love die a slow, strangulated death? Trollope is very good at showing Alice’s frustration with John Grey because of his lack of political ambition and the absence of romance in his life, though he may be perfect in other respects. (Though he has more heart than he shows her.)

Glencora’s story becomes what Alice fears for herself. If her love dies, will she become reckless, will she regret her marriage, will she forget what she owes to her husband, herself, and society? Glencora is not a bad woman, but she’s become weak because she is terribly unhappy. And she, too, sees her life bound up with Alice’s in some way. What did you think? Did you have to forgive one of these women?

Teresa: I didn’t feel a need to forgive either woman because I could understand both of their dilemmas. I was especially drawn into Alice’s situation. I found myself frustrated at her inability to decide, but I couldn’t be mad at her about it. It was more that I was frustrated at how difficult it was for her to choose and how so few people seemed to understand her fears, preferring to label her a jilt than to consider how high the stakes were.

Trollope’s characterization of Alice’s two suitors contributed a lot to my sympathy for her. It was easy to see that Grey is the better man but that doesn’t make him a better partner. At first, George seems more passionate and exciting, and his irresponsibility could be chalked up to youth. The revelations about his true character took my breath away. It was entirely predictable and all too common, even today, but this kind of thing is still unexpected when it happens.

Jenny: Yes — right — and to have so many people who are loyal to George, even at the end, because he was so private about his wickedness! Burgo Fitzgerald doesn’t get that ease, because he was still just honorable enough to be open about his disgrace, I suppose.

Still, Alice labels herself a jilt, as much as her relations do. Almost the whole problem, towards the end, is that Alice has been forgiven by everyone but herself. I think it’s an open question at the end of the novel whether she can ever be open-heartedly happy after what she’s been through. Glencora has decided to throw in her lot with her husband, and Plantangenet has made a sacrifice for her; who can say what their future happiness will be? I sympathized with all three women, and (as a 21st century middle-aged feminist) had nothing to forgive them. But Trollope is pointing out, among other things, the serious cost of going against societal expectations. The only one of the three who counts the cost and will certainly be able to pay it all is Mrs. Greenow, with her very slightly naughty second husband.

Teresa: And the whole issue of societal expectations goes right back to the question of choice, which so fascinated me. Mrs. Greenow has both a fortune and a lack of concern about what other people think. That gives her choices. Alice has a fortune and independence, but because she quite understandably cares about others’ opinions, she can’t choose her own course without being plagued by doubt.

I thought Trollope did a fine job at examining these women’s dilemmas with compassion and dashes of good humor. Although I have some vague recollections of where the story ends up from reading The Duke’s Children, I’m eager to take the journey to that ending.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 8 Comments

Edie on the Warpath

edie on the warpathIt’s taken me four years to savor the four books in E.C. Spykman’s series about the Cares family (A Lemon and a Star, The Wild Angel, Terrible, Horrible Edie, and Edie on the Warpath.) They are so good — outrageously good — that I almost had my feelings hurt that no one had ever given them to me as a child. They are as good as Elizabeth Enright’s books, as Edward Eager’s. I would have read them to pieces, and by now I could have had them mostly memorized. But we make do with what we have. And now I have these: books that get children exactly right, good intentions and intentional trouble and huge, fierce emotions and all.

It’s Edie against the world in this volume, as it was in Terrible, Horrible Edie. She is insanely frustrated by her lack of rights and privileges compared to her older brothers Ted and Hubert, especially since they deem her below consideration. When she hears that the suffragette movement could one day give her some say over her own decisions and even let her become president, she takes to it instantly (though she concedes that no president would likely be allowed to put all men into traps.) She rebels, and sometimes takes revenge large and small: she punches a cop at the suffragettes’ parade, which is one thing, but she also concocts an elaborate setup to ruin her condescending brother’s party that had me literally in tears of laughter.

Her best friend, Susan, a minister’s daughter, tries to teach Edie to rely on God to help her. Edie, however, is convinced that God is in on the game, and mostly helps boys and not girls. “That old God,” she says. “He can’t do a thing.” Edie’s brave, strong, quick-thinking life, her love for her surroundings, her adventurous spirit, and her reliance on herself — after all, God might have enough to do, and need smart girls to do some of the work — are the heart and soul of this terrific book.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | 7 Comments

The Bloodstone Papers

bloodstone papersSome regular readers of this blog may remember the over-the-top reviews I wrote of Glen Duncan’s werewolf trilogy: The Last Werewolf, Tallula Rising, and By Blood We Live. I enjoyed those books so thoroughly that I thought I would give Duncan a try in another context: The Bloodstone Papers, an ordinary literary-fiction novel. This book, as it turns out, also talks about sex and death — but there’s nothing supernatural about it.

The Bloodstone Papers gives us Owen Monroe, a morose, middle-aged Anglo-Indian teacher in London in 2004. He pieces out a living teaching English, tending bar at a place called Neon Hallelujah, and writing pornography under the pseudonym Millicent Nash. You’d think this would keep him busy, but in fact he spends most of his time mourning his vanished ex-girlfriend Scarlet, and obsessing over his own mortality.

But Owen also has a project that takes him out of himself: a biography of his parents, Ross and Kate Monroe, Anglo-Indians who grew up in pre-partition India. Owen is interested in finding out as much as possible about his parents, and thus finding out what sort of man he may yet become; Ross is obsessed by a con-man figure named Skinner, who may or may not have duped him repeatedly during the 1940s and ’50s. The chapters alternate between modern London and partition-era India.

Skinner is a fascinating character, running in and out of the story with his guileless English face, close-shaven chin, and blue eyes. The secret to his scams, perpetrated on educated Anglo-Indians, is his pretense at race-blindness: they are thrilled at being treated like an equal by an Englishman, as if “the haze of color and class had evaporated.” When Skinner says “Trust me,” they do, even when they know better. Owen, listening to these stories, torments himself with the question of whether Skinner, or any white person, has ever regarded any Anglo-Indian (“or Eurasian or East Indian or half-caste or mongrel or pariah or cheechee or Chutney Mary, depending on your angle”) as an equal.

It’s clear that Owen is writing his own story as much as his parents’.

They were born before the Camps, the Bomb, the Moon, the Ozone, the Internet, the End of History. For them the big things don’t change: God, Fate, Love, Time, Beginnings, Endings. Good and Evil.

Ross agrees with Owen that the changing times, in robbing him of belief, have played a dirty trick on him (not unlike the conman Skinner):

Things were simpler then. You got married, it was for good. You believed in God, it was for good. The big things meant something to us, you know? We didn’t know any different, but we weren’t miserable like you buggers today.

And it is true that Owen may be wiser than his parents, but he’s a lot less happy, too. The chapters move back and forth between Owen’s lethargic, self-pitying life and the active, imaginative life of Ross and Kate. To be honest, my heart beat a little faster every time I saw an Indian city and a midcentury date at the top of the chapter, setting me free from modern London. It’s not just about blame, either: Owen’s constant harping on his ex-girlfriend gave me the pip. He’s able to give his own mother agency even in her past (something an awful lot of children can’t do for their parents), but his imagination about his ex-girlfriend is primarily sexual. When he’s confronted with the evidence that she is someone different than his imaginary construct, won’t listen. The howl of mortality in his ears is too loud.

I was very interested in a lot of what The Bloodstone Papers had to say, especially about race, caste, and class. Duncan is very acute when he talks about the temptation to sell your soul to be treated, not just as equal, but alike. It’s got humor in it, too, and approaches its halfway subjects from a number of different angles. I especially liked Owen’s mother, who escapes from a nightmarish household and is the strength of her family from then on. But it’s far from a perfect book. I think we’re supposed to find Owen interesting, caught in his agnostic existence, but he’s a bit too much of a damp rag to be a really interesting character. He continues to resist the lessons of the universe — the lessons of the book — all the scams Skinner is selling: take a chance, live a little. Trust me.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

The Opposite of Spoiled

opposite of spoiledThere are a lot of decisions to make when you’re raising a kid. Everyone knows about the ones that have been magnified into giant issues (cloth diapering! babywearing!) but it’s the day-to-day decisions that can wear you down: no, you can’t have another piece of candy, you had one at lunch. Yes, you can watch an hour of television. No, a half-hour. No, you can’t have video games but you can play Minecraft because… well, because it seems creative, I guess? No, you can’t have a phone, you’re ten, that’s ridiculous. I know your friends have them, I don’t care. What in the world is a Beyblade? Yes, you can have ice cream, but tomorrow you can’t, we don’t have dessert every night. Go play outside.  Fresh air is good for you. Because I said so, that’s why.

When it comes to money, I constantly feel like I’m making these decisions wrong. Should they have an allowance? How much? Should I tie it to chores? How should I talk to them about giving without making them feel guilty? Should I let them buy what they want with their money? What about the tooth fairy? Should they be saving for college at their age? At what age should they have a phone? A car? How much should they pay for those things? What about a job when they’re teenagers — shouldn’t they be doing something more interesting, so they’ll get admitted to college in the first place?

Ron Lieber’s book The Opposite of Spoiled addresses all these questions — and more — in a calm, sensible way that lets me think about them in terms of our family’s values. He points out that kids are curious about everything — that’s their job — and when they’re curious about our jobs, about our money, about whether we are rich or poor or can afford something, we should answer them, and involve them (at their level) in decision-making. He points out that the common approach that keeps kids away from money until they are 18 and then expects them to handle money well (credit cards, student loans, health care plans) is throwing them in a very serious deep end, and it’s not to their benefit.

What should we do, then? Lieber has lots of ideas, and they aren’t one-size-fits-all. Whether your family is middle class (which in the US means an income of $50,000) or well above that, or well below that, you can teach kids about money in a way that aligns with your own values. He tells a story about a wealthy family that sold their 6,000 square foot house, bought a 3,000 square foot house, and gave away the rest of the money. He also tells a story about a first-generation American family that made enough money collecting cans and bottles from the dump and taking them to the recycling center to pay for their daughter to attend community college.

Lieber encourages allowance; he encourages kids to give; he encourages them to save and spend and make mistakes they can learn from while the stakes are low. He wants kids to be inquisitive and generous. I didn’t agree with every approach of every family in this book — of course I didn’t — but I thought this was an extremely useful take on teaching children about money. It was readable, adaptable, and thoughtful about the needs of the world we live in.

Posted in Nonfiction | 10 Comments

120, rue de la Gare

120 rue de la gare120, rue de la Gare, by Léo Malet, is one of the very first French “romans noirs,” a phrase taken from a series of novels published under the rubric Série Noire. The French were very much influenced by American authors writing hard-boiled detective fiction during the 1920s and 1930s — authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. By the 1950s, the French market was flooded, not so much by French authors writing in this style, but by American imports. After the second World War, France was hungry for whatever the United States wanted to provide, including pulpy, titillating detective fiction.

However, in 1943, the situation hadn’t yet gotten to that point. Léo Malet was certainly under the influence of American hard-boiled fiction, but 120, rue de la Gare is strictly a French production. Malet wrote the novel, the first of a series with his private detective hero, Nestor Burma, under the German occupation of France. Malet had been loosely tied to the surrealist movement before the war, and in 1940 had been sent to prison and then to a German concentration camp because of his Trotskyite involvement. When he returned in 1941, he turned away from surrealism and started writing tough-guy detective stories about the world he saw in front of him.

This novel begins with a curious sequence in which Burma, like Malet himself, has been sent to a concentration camp as a prisoner of war. He is serving in the camp’s hospital and caring for an amnesiac who has come in with a high fever. The amnesiac’s dying words are, “Tell Helen… 120, rue de la Gare.” Neither the name nor the place is exactly uncommon, and Burma isn’t exactly sentimental. Nevertheless, he decides to do his best if he can.

Upon his return to France, Burma is pulling into the train station at Lyon when he sees two things: a woman who looks almost exactly like the film star Michele Hogan; and his partner, Bob Colomer, running up to meet him. Unfortunately, Bob only has a few seconds to tell Burma that he’s got some important information for him before he is shot, almost bringing Burma under the wheels of the train as well. Bob’s final words? “Boss… 120, rue de la Gare.”

The rest of the book consists in Burma’s wandering around the city of Lyon (and, later, Nazi-occupied Paris), trying to understand the mystery — if there even is a mystery. Burma has an excellent reputation, both on the streets and among the police, and even after his time in the camps, he finds he still has connections: his journalist buddy Marc, his “typist-secretary-collaborator-agent” Helen, his lawyer friend Bernard. Wartime has made everything harder, darker, grimmer, leaner. But a man like Burma can still get answers.

This novel is written in the first person, in the inimitable voice of Nestor Burma himself, proprietor of the Fiat Lux detective agency. It’s sarcastic, dry, casual, slangy, heavily influenced by the hard-boiled, terse. One tiny example. After asking — well, demanding — a huge and dangerous favor of his journalist friend, Burma continues:

“Give me an overcoat or a raincoat,” I said, wriggling in front of the mirror. “I don’t need a hat. My beret will do.”

“Really? Will that be all?” he asked. “I could always lend you my razor, shine your shoes, give you my ration cards and slip you my girlfriend’s address.”

“Some other time,” I said. “See you tonight.”

This book is so interesting on questions of what it means to work on the margins. Since once again (as in Arsene Lupin) it isn’t safe to work inside the law, Burma’s marginalized position is the only one that can reasonably achieve justice, but what is justice if it’s outside the law? This is interesting, too, for other marginalized groups: the lower classes, women, immigrants. My students and I had a lot of good discussions about this during my French Crime Fiction class, and it is just plain good reading, as well. I recommend this entire witty, tough, interesting series.

This book has been published in English by Pan books, translated by P. Hudson. The quotation in this blog entry was my own translation, though. For those of you who speak French, there’s a series of graphic novels made from these books, by the inimitable Jacques Tardi (of Adele Blanc-Sec fame), and they are absolutely wonderful.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | Leave a comment

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

gigantic-beardThis charming and quirky graphic novel by Stephen Collins is another recommendation from Pop Culture Happy Hour. In it, a previously bald man named Dave finds his predictable and tidy life taken over by a beard that won’t stop growing. Soon, it takes over the town, becoming first a curiosity and then a menace.

Collins tells the story with black-and white pencil drawings, sometimes arranged in tiny panels, marching across the page, and sometimes in single images spread across two pages. He makes particularly good use of black, which is rarely (if ever) purely black. Instead, the blackness of the sea and, later, the beard is full of texture and life. But the life in the blackness is disorderly and thus frightening.

CollinsPrior to the beard, Dave’s life in the town of Here was pleasant enough. He had a decent job and a comfortable home, just like all the others on his street. But that home was next to the sea, and on the other side of the sea is There. And, we’re told, “There was disorder. There was chaos. There was evil.” (These words are all printed over a two-page spread of blackness full of spirals and tentacles and vine-like images.)

To drown out the sound of the sea, Dave spends his evenings listening to “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles (which has been on a near-constant loop in my head since reading this) and drawing what he sees outside his window. There’s a disquiet about his life and his work in the back of his head, and the best he can do is to try think of nothing.

03_collinsIt’s trite to say that when the beard turns up everything changes. That’s obvious. But I appreciated the way Collins depicts the change with a mix of horror and excitement. The world of Here before the beard needed to change. But the beard’s never-ceasing growth constitutes a real problem. And the solution and its aftermath are both exhilarating and terrifying. Collins keeps these two feelings in tension remarkably well throughout. And the book’s happily ever after has a dark side (maybe).

I liked this book very much. The back cover compares it to the work of Roald Dahl and Tim Burton, and I can see those influences. The balance of humor and darkness is similar. And the art reminded me a little of Edward Gorey. It’s my kind of weird.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

Four Freedoms

four freedomsJohn Crowley is probably best known for his speculative fiction — I think Little, Big may be the best American fantasy novel ever published, and his Aegypt tetralogy has a cult following for a very good reason. But Four Freedoms (like The Translator, one of the best novels I’ve read in the past several years) is rooted in the knowable past. It takes place during the second World War, in Ponca City, OK (a real place), at the impossibly massive Van Damme Aero factory (invented.) This is where the Van Damme brothers are manufacturing the Pax, a gargantuan bomber that will, they believe, be so unstoppable that it will eventually bring peace to the troubled world.

These enormous bombers require an equally enormous work force. The Van Damme brothers create an entire city around the factory, with its own railroad spur, and everything workers could need: housing, clothing, food, bars, movie theaters, a small press, nurseries and schools for the children, bowling alleys, and on and on. But most of the usual “skilled workers” — the white, young, able-bodied men — are off at war. Who will populate this small utopia, where everyone can do useful work, where everyone has what they need, where everyone is valued, valuable, free?

In fact, it is those who in the larger society have been discarded as useless, suspect, or worthless in one way or another. Crowley is playing with disability here — or what society sees as disability; the factory is staffed with hundreds of women, for instance, along with what one Van Damme executive bluntly calls “the coloreds, the oldsters, the defectives, the handicaps,” who have come to do their share. There are Communists, there are Native Americans, there are Latinas, there are little people. At first, some people won’t work with the African-Americans. Later, they shrug and think, What do I care? Who would have thought I’d be doing this either? Acceptance comes through a common cause: they are all working to protect the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear). This, of course, is a concept dreamed up by President Roosevelt, a kind of tutelary spirit in his own wheelchair.

The novel’s main character is Prosper Olander, a young man with a “ski-jump spine and marionette’s legs” who has come to work for the factory. Prosper, a sweet-tempered and deeply empathetic ladies’ man, listens to the women who lie in his arms — some married to absent servicemen, some single, almost all surprised that he is capable of love. We hear their stories, and Prospero’s own. In this way, Crowley’s big ideas about capitalism, work, gender, ability, and societal expectations are shown, not told: all lives enmeshed with each other, bright and dark.

John Crowley is one of my favorite authors. I’ve said in others of my reviews of his work that his language and structure are always beautiful: bright, soft threads like a tapestry, pulling through so you can see first one theme, then another. In one of his books (Engine Summer, the one I abandoned reviewing last year because I just couldn’t catch up on my backlog), he talks about a labyrinthine commune, a place to live where you spend your whole childhood learning your path to your living place in the warren. Along the path, there are “snake’s hands,” digressions where you can step off and play a game with someone, or have a conversation, or spend a few days, and then get back on the path that is both life and destiny. All Crowley’s books are like this: a main stream of plot, but with digressions and diversions and back-stories where you can spend time, and then get back to the main story. It’s a structure of path-and-snake’s-hands that I find intensely appealing.

This is, in fact, the last of Crowley’s fiction that I have to read, and I feel a bit bereft. It was a wonderful book, rich and deep. I recommend anything by Crowley, anything at all, but this would probably be a very good place to begin.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 7 Comments

The Scorpio Races

The island spools out beneath the moonlight. We gallop parallel to the cliff edge, and beyond it I see a flock of white birds keeping pace with us. Gulls, perhaps, soaring and gliding on air currents that send them violently upward as they get close to the rocks. This is Thisby, I think. This is the island I love. I suddenly feel I know everything about the island and everything about me all at the same time, only I know that it will go away as soon as we stop.

scorpio-racesTeresa gave me this introduction to Maggie Stiefvater’s work for this year’s Book Swap, working on the assumption, I think, that a non-series book is sometimes a better place to start than a series. Her review of it is wonderful, bringing out all the good points of the novel, from the plot (not quite as predictable as it looks at first glance) to the characters (fresher than a magical horse romance makes them sound) to the writing (really pretty good, actually.) I don’t want to rehash what she says about this book, in which men (usually men, anyway) race carnivorous water horses — the capaill uisce — at the risk of their lives. Go read her review.

There were two things I particularly enjoyed about reading this novel. The first (though this may seem like more than one thing) was the excellence with which Stiefvater writes the material about the island — the horses, the legends, the cave paintings, the breathless races. All the reasons Puck doesn’t want to leave Thisby (and all the reasons her brother feels he must) are rolled into this: the bits and bobs in the shops, the smell of the bakeshop, the sand in her hair, the sense that when you’re born on Thisby you’re an insider of insiders. It’s beautifully done. Even the fact that the church is St. Columba, and there’s a real-life legend about St. Columba and a horse, is seamlessly put together: a calque on an older legend, exactly how it would really be. I thought it was glorious.

The other thing I enjoyed enormously was the growing parallel in my own head between riding the capaill uisce and the gentle art of falconry. There are people even today who hunt with golden eagles, did you know that? Not many, because eagles hunt over wide open ground, and because of the great danger to other people when eagles are looking for prey, and because of the enormous difficulty of training and managing an eagle. Does any of this sound at all like the work you might put into a magical predatory horse, risen from the sea and ready to eat your flesh at any time? Slata Baba, Dunnett readers? And yet — the joy of that partnership, and that flight!

I appreciate a novel of this kind where less is said and more is left for me to understand. This, for a book about carnivorous water horses, desire, racing, identity, capitalism, gender, and the various things home means to different people, left me mostly to draw my own conclusions. I found it well-written and satisfying, and it made me want to read more of Stiefvater’s work. Preferably a series.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 7 Comments


Trillium CoverI first heard about this graphic novel by Jeff Lemire last December at the Pop Culture Happy Hour live show. Glen Weldon named it as his favorite book of the year, describing it as a science fiction time-travel romance. OK, yeah, I’ll try that.

The story begins in the year 3797. Almost all humans have been wiped out by a sentient plague known as the Caul. Dr. Nika Tensmith is trying to communicate with an alien species about the Trillium flower that grows on their planet and seems to hold the key to a vaccine against the Caul. She’s making progress, but time is running out. Only 4,000 humans remain, and the Caul has reached one of the last human colonies.

As Nika continues trying to communicate with the aliens, they make her eat a Trillium flower and lead her into a building that looks like a Incan temple. Soon, Nika finds herself in a jungle, face-to-face with a human man who speaks a language she cannot understand.

The man is William, an English soldier still suffering flashbacks from the Great War. Now, in 1921, he has traveled to South America to find some secret leaves that, when chewed, are said to bring health, happiness, and power over death. William is as flummoxed by Nika as she is by him, and they spend the rest of the book trying to understand their connection.

Trillium Single ImageThis book, originally published as eight single issues, is ingeniously put together. Lemire uses his art to twine the two timelines together. Visual cues echo each other in the two timelines. At some points, the panels are inverted to show one timeline when the book is held right side up and another upside down. This visual echoes in this section (I believe a single issue of the comic) are especially stunning.

The story itself is engaging—engaging enough to hold my attention for the time it takes to read a short graphic novel, anyway. A lot of my attention, however, was focused on marveling at the cleverness of the structure. I didn’t form much of an attachment to the characters, and I really didn’t buy the romance. Toward the end of the book, Nika notes that they’ve only spent a few hours together. I kept expecting the timeline to offer more of a history that they’re unaware of, and it sort of does, but not enough to convince me.

Trillium ArtThe other thing that kept this from being quite as good as I’d hoped is the fact that I just didn’t really care for the art. I can see that it’s very skillfully done, with lots of attention to visual detail and demands of the story. But there’s a chiseled gauntness to the characters’ faces that I found unpleasant to look at, even when the characters weren’t meant to look sickly. There are some single images that I found arresting, but the overall look of this book didn’t appeal to me.

I read most of my comics digitally these days through Comixology subscriptions (currently subscribed to Ms Marvel, Hawkeye, and Fables), but this is a self-contained story, so I got it from the library instead. If you decide to read it, I recommend seeking out a print copy. I don’t think the construction of the panels and the way they relate to each other will come across nearly as well digitally. That aspect of the book is what really impressed me, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it much at all if I hadn’t experienced it on paper.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments